National Post

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Monday, April 5, 1999

A civilized divorce
Standing before God and your friends to acknowledge the end of your marriage may seem like pointless torture, but some say it's simply the decent thing to do

Jeannie Marshall
National Post

Dominic Bugatto, National Post / Cars with "Just Divorced" signs on them.

While a wedding is considered a happy and sacred occasion to be celebrated with a ceremony witnessed by family and friends, you would think a divorce would be kept as low-key as possible -- just between the couple and their lawyer. But some people out there feel a divorce should be marked with a ceremony complete with witnesses and, in some cases, even a religious leader.

Reverend Canon David Luxton of St. George's on-the-Hill Anglican Church in Toronto's west end thinks it makes sense, in a way, to have the church involved in a divorce. "We're involved in so many other aspects of life -- weddings, births, funerals -- why not divorce?" says Luxton.

He had read about the idea of divorce ceremonies in a book by Bishop John Spong of Newark, N.J. So when a member of Luxton's church asked him to perform a ceremony in St. George's to mark the end of her marriage, he adapted the service Spong had written, and went ahead with it.

The couple performed the ceremony in the church with Luxton, his wife, the couple's teenaged daughter, and two witnesses present. They sat on either side of the church in the choir boxes, as the service built to a point where the divorcing couple stood face to face and spoke only to each other.

They started with a hymn. Luxton read a Psalm, and then he explained that they were gathered in the church to remember this marriage and to acknowledge its passing. After several more readings from the Bible, the couple were left to speak to each other.

"They spoke about what was in their hearts. I didn't want to hear it. None of us wanted to hear it. It's not our business, it's the Lord's business. They went on for a few minutes and then brought it to an end, sort of. They hugged, sort of. It was not as if there was no longer a chasm between them, because there was, but somehow they could see across it," says Luxton from behind his cluttered wooden desk in the cozy, cottage-like office just behind the church. He speaks slowly and carefully, making an effort not to be misunderstood. He's not an advocate for the church being involved in the rite of divorce, he's not trying to change the way Anglicans feel about divorce, but he was not opposed to helping these people with a ceremony they believed would make it easier for them to move ahead with their separate lives.

"I've only done that one. [Divorce] is so harrowing anyway. I'm just not sure how people would feel about having a ceremony. So I don't offer it as a service, I wait until they come to me about it. I don't want someone dragging the other partner along unwillingly," says Luxton.

Although most religions consider divorce as something to be avoided as much as possible, in the Islamic faith a religious divorce ceremony is a necessary part of dissolving a marriage.

"Marriage is very sacred in Islam. Divorce is only tolerated for the overall well-being of the individual if by living together it will be a torture," explains Mohammed Saffie, the director of education at the Toronto and Region Islamic Congregation.

In Islam, if a husband wants to end his marriage, he must choose a time when his wife is not menstruating and tell her that he wants a divorce. He is then required to continue living with her for a month. If they do not have intimate relations during that time, the husband again tells his wife that he will divorce her. This goes on for a period of three months. At the end of three months, if the couple still has not had sex, they will take part in a ceremony in the mosque to dissolve the marriage. At the end, the man will offer his wife a gift to symbolize the fact that the marriage is over and they are separating on good terms. The process is similar if it is the wife who initiates an end to the marriage.

"At the time of marriage, there are two witnesses required by Islamic law. The dissolution of this marriage, because it is a contract, must also be witnessed by society, preferably by the same two witnesses, if possible. This way, it will be related properly [to the community] to avoid gossip and to maintain the integrity of the individuals who were part and parcel of this marriage," says Saffie.

Such rituals and ceremonies are not just the domain of those with religious affiliations. When Bruce Rosove and Nancy Surkes decided to end their relationship, they held a non-religious ceremony with their friends at their Ottawa home.

"[The ceremony] was Bruce's idea. I was a little hesitant because I didn't feel I needed it for closure. I knew it was important to him so I wanted to do it for that reason, and we wanted to stay on amicable terms and I thought this could help," says Surkes.

Everyone sat in a circle and Rosove and Surkes talked about what they liked about their relationship and what they would miss. They also talked about why it was ending.

"When you get married, everybody talks about it. When you separate or divorce, people are talking but they may not be talking to your face. This was a way to witness the separation and to make it a real transition," she explains.

The common element of these divorce ceremonies is a need to formally acknowledge the end of a relationship. Surkes said it allowed her to leave her relationship and to still feel good about Rosove. Luxton believes it was beneficial for the couple that he worked with as well. And Saffie says a ceremony helps people to behave decently toward each other. That always helps with the process of getting on with their lives.

"This should free them to feel they can go on and get married to someone else who they feel they can live with better," says Saffie. "The main emphasis here is that even in parting, you don't have to become enemies."

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